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Alarming Situations

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I am both a night owl and a morning person (which means I'm an insomniac). The only reason I use an alarm clock is to pick the kids up at school on time. But some seriously deep sleepers (like my children) need more incentive to get out of bed than a "normal" alarm clock offers. You've read here about the Puzzle Alarm Clock, the Flying Alarm Clock, and Clocky the hiding clock, all designed to make you wake up and do something to turn the alarm off. The problem is that some heavy sleepers can learn to do those things without waking up! But clock designers are busy making it even harder for you to snooze.
For example, try this Bomb Clock. In order to turn off the alarm, you must connect the wires in the correct order, or an explosion will result. I don't think that will actually happen, but why take the chance?

They say that money is the biggest incentive in the world. That's the concept behind the Banclock. You have to feed it a coin to turn the alarm off. But eventually, you'll be able to take that money out. I think.

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The cops are coming! The Emergency Alarm Clock wakes you up with blue lights and a siren. You can attach it to the wall or window if you like. Also good for pranking your sleeping friends.

More ways to wake up, after the jump.

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You might think the siren clock would be the loudest, but this cute little innocent-looking Sonic Boom Sweetheart Alarm Clock has a 113 decibel alarm! That makes the volume about equivalent to being in the front row at a rock concert. That should wake you up. And everyone else within a mile radius.

 

You can program the IKEA Slabang Alarm Clock to use your voice as the alarm, or any sound you want, via its built-in microphone. This would be great for kids, since research shows children are more likely to wake to a parent's voice than to an alarm. Mark Frauenfelder recorded his to play "I Got You Babe", just like in the movie Groundhog Day.

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There are other pleasant ways to awaken. The Voco Clock wakes you with the soothing voice of Stephen Fry politely reminding you to wake up. "Good morning, sir. I'm so sorry to disturb you, but it appears to be morning. Very inconvenient, I agree, sir. I believe it is the rotation of the earth that is to blame, sir." But don't take my word for it; you can hear that and other wakeup phrases at the product site. A "Madam" version should be available soon.
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But the most pleasant way yet to wake up is to the smell of frying bacon. Place a frozen strip of bacon into the Bacon Clock before you retire. Ten minutes before alarm time, the clock begins to fry the bacon with halogen lamps. At your rising time, the bacon is ready and the smell is to die for. Who could sleep through that?

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If anyone builds a better alarm clock, I want to know about it.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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May 23, 2017
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